I confess that I had forgotten all about the fig tree in the backyard until I read an article by Russ Parsons in the Los Angeles Times food section this morning. True, the tree is technically in our neighbors' yard, but it is an apartment building next door (with fairly uninvolved renters, I mean, garden-wise), and the tree is at the very back, away from any doors or windows, so that they have forgotten about it, if indeed they ever cared. Their handyman hacked off many of the branches last spring, to my dismay, but enough are still hanging over the fence that we could reach them without actually trespassing!
Laura and I -- Julia lost interest -- spent a good half hour up on a ladder, searching through the leaves and plucking the soft, ripe figs, batting away the Japanese beetles that were half-drunk with the sweetness of the burst fruit.
The fruit should be picked when it is soft but not bursting. The young figs are slightly darker and perky, while the ripe ones droop on the branch from their own weight. When buying figs in the market, Parsons says, "shop carefully. Ripe figs are tender, but not gushing. If you see cracks in the skin, that's a good sign. And if you see a little tear of syrup falling from the eye on the bottom, that's a great sign. These indicate super sweet figs. When you get them home, stick them straight into the refrigerator; they're very delicate."
I was never interested in figs when I was little -- my grandparents had a tree, but I didn't like the way the fig seeds felt in my teeth, so I appreciated the tree merely for its climbability (which was excellent). A few years ago, after we moved into this house, I ate one of the figs from the neighbors' tree, and was amazed at the sensations, the flesh tender yet slightly crunchy from the seeds, and sweet with a hint of strawberry. Julia refused a taste outright, but Laura was eager to try, and with her first bite was asking for more. You don't need to peel the figs, unless they are Kadotas, which have a tougher skin than most varieties -- simply trim off the stems. They have a lovely, sea-anenome-like interior, so it's worth it to cut them in half before you eat them. (This particular tree may be the "Adriatic" variety, but I'm not at all sure.)
Figs are botanically not a fruit, I learned from the Times this morning, but a group of flowers that has essentially turned itself inside out -- the pulp on the inside is made of the pistils and stamens of the individual blooms. The seeds are the actual "fruit".
I don't think there are enough figs on the tree for jam, but I'm having lovely thoughts about tarts and clafoutis, perhaps a gelato....